In Afghanistan’s war-torn countryside, America’s exit means one thing: Peace

KULANGAR, Afghanistan —

At a tiny, two-pump gas station off the two-lane highway running through Afghanistan’s Logar province, Mohammad Farooq, the attendant, was unequivocal in his view of the United States.

“Thank God the Americans went away,” Farooq said one recent morning, smiling.

Since they left, we don’t see ambulances every day. We don’t see people hurt or fighting. It’s very good now.”

Over in a dilapidated shack on the opposite side of the highway, 24-year-old Nasratullah Raihan said much the same as he watched a repairman fiddle with the rear sprocket of his bicycle.

“For the 20 years that America was here, it was problems,” Raihan said, to the nods of others. Every day you had people killed. Every day you had people killed.”

Men sit and stand inside a small shop around an upside-down bicycle.

Customers find reprieve from the sweltering heat at a bicycle repair shop along the main road near Kulangar, Afghanistan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In recent weeks, anxious residents in Afghan cities such as Kabul, the capital, have grappled with the reality of a country back under the control of the fundamentalist, theocratically minded Taliban. Many thousands have fled, afraid to face the reality of a country under the control of the Taliban, while others have watched in horror the destruction of their lives and the resulting loss of freedom.

But in the countryside, where the Taliban has long held sway and where almost three-quarters of Afghanistan’s 38 million people live, America’s exit and the lightning-fast collapse of the Afghan security forces have brought something precious: peace.

Here in Kulangar, a village that’s little more than a sprinkling of mud houses amid fields of wheat, tomatoes, beans and onions, that peace came Aug. 8, a week before Afghan forces disintegrated as the Taliban encircled and then entered Kabul.

Boy herding cows

A boy herding cows walks by a home damaged in fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban in the village of Kulangar, Afghanistan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Women in burqas walking in the street

Women in burqas walk in the village of Kulangar, about two hours from the Afghan capital, Kabul.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“The government soldiers, they just ran off,” said Nazeerullah Ahmad, 35, who had worked odd jobs around Pul-e-Alam, Logar’s capital. “Everyone who lives there has been happy since then. We’ve had no security problems at all.”

As the U.S. closed the chapter on its longest war, with the last troops departing Aug. 30, both allies and critics excoriated the Biden administration for not maintaining a presence in Afghanistan to try to safeguard some of the fledgling gains of the last two decades. Most of these strides were made in cities like Kabul where tens to billions of dollars of aid transformed the capital into a developed metropolis. Girls enrolled in school, and women — unveiled or otherwise — were employed in the companies that sprang up in the new economy.

But the Kulangar people, who are subsistence farmers, were unaware that there was ever been much evidence of Western generosity.

Instead, the legacy of the American presence was destruction, Ahmad said.

As he walked through the village with his neighbors, he pointed out walls that had been ravaged by gunfire and shrapnel from an errant mortar bomb dropping near a gate. A tank round left behind a jagged maw on another wall. The damage to the houses was evident.

A child peeks out of a doorway.

A young boy peeks out of the doorway of a home damaged during the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

And in each of those attacks, villagers said, someone had either been hurt or killed.

It’s difficult to list all the names of the deceased. Ahmad stated that there were too many.

Massoudah, Ahmad Sheer’s younger sister, was one of the last people to die in the war. Three months ago, a rocket crashed into her family compound. It had been sighted by government soldiers in one of the rooms. Sheer stated that she went to the authorities but they refused to help her. “They didn’t even listen.”

An Afghan girl is flanked by other children in a courtyard.

Nine-year-old Suniha, center, was wounded in an explosion when she was drawing water from a well at her home.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The authorities also didn’t help Nayebullah Abassi, a 37-year-old farmer whose daughter Suniha, 9, was injured when she was drawing water from a well in the courtyard of her home. It was just an explosion. Suniha stated that she woke up in hospital after the explosion. Her father took off her pink hijab and revealed the scar on her forehead. Abassi displayed his own injuries, including a bullet wound to his knee and shrapnel in the hip. He said that the government had never helped him. “They said we were Taliban and never gave us assistance.”

A close-up of pink flowers with a man on a bike in the distance.

A small bridge connects one side of Kulangar village with the other in Afghanistan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The violence in rural Afghanistan, which bore the brunt of the last 20 years’ fighting, intensified in the months leading up to the Taliban takeover. The United Nations’ monitoring mission in Afghanistan reported a 47% increase in civilian casualties — almost 5,200 — in the first half of 2021 compared with the same period last year; much of that increase happened after May 1, when the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies began their troop drawdown and the Taliban launched the spring offensive that led to its nationwide triumph. The truth behind these horrendous statistics was small in Kulangar. A bridge over a stream connects the two sides of the village, but it is divided by warring forces.

“On one side you had the Taliban and on the other, the government, so it was always trouble,” Ahmad stated. The fighting was so intense that children were often sent to school every day. Raihan, the man who was getting his bike fixed, recalled the morning in April 2018 when his two young brothers, ages 7 and 8, and their 2-year-old cousin, Mustafa, were hit by a mortar shell while cutting across a field to get to school.

Their backpacks and books were scattered around. One had his arm cut and the other, his leg. Raihan held up a photo of the three children who had died and said that Mustafa’s face was so badly damaged that I couldn’t recognize him.

Although Kulangar is no longer a battlefield, a new crisis now threatens the village as well as the rest of the country. The Taliban’s takeover has upended international assistance programs for Afghanistan, a cataclysm for the aid-dependent country. International organizations are trying to find ways to work with these new rulers, despite a host of U.N., U.S., and European sanctions. Both poverty and food prices continue to rise as international organizations struggle to make sense of the situation.

A person crouches, covered by a large piece of fabric; children stand nearby.

Shaimaa, left, covers her face and takes a rest as her family gathers water at their home in Kulangar, Afghanistan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The price of flour, for example, has more than doubled, exceeding 2,200 afghanis — about $25 — for a 110-pound bag, said Samis, a wheelbarrow porter in the produce market in Khair Khana, a suburb north of Kabul. He is a typical Afghan who goes by one name.

Meanwhile, a cash crunch means that people can barely afford to buy anything, said Mohammad Zaman, 52, a fruiterer who was tending to the makeshift stall he had set up on the highway divider.

“We buy these grapes for 100 afghanis a bag in the morning,” he said, pointing to an array of bagged grapes on the ground. “By the time evening comes, I haven’t sold any, and I have to sell them for 50. It’s just a loss.”

At a high-level ministerial meeting on the worsening humanitarian situation in the country, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that Afghans were “facing the collapse of an entire country — all at once.”

A man stands inside a home with holes in the walls and doors.

Many of the homes in the village of Kulangar, Afghanistan, were damaged in the long war between the Taliban and U.S.-backed Afghan forces.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“After decades of war, suffering and insecurity, they face perhaps their most perilous hour,” he said. “Now is the time for the international community to stand with them.”

At that meeting, international donors pledged about $1 billion in aid for Afghanistan, although it remains unclear how — and more importantly to whom — that money would be disbursed.

Ahmad, the Kulangar resident, said he was unconcerned with who was in charge in Kabul, so long as peace would last and there was some work.

“We’re poor and don’t think about such things,” he stated.

“All that we care about is how to make money and get food for our family.”

Read More